4 reasons why your bilingual child answers in the “wrong” language

by | Apr 8, 2015 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Practical advice, Teenagers, Top 10 most read posts | 9 comments

4 reasons why your bilingual child answers in the “wrong” languageGetting an answer in the “wrong” language is something which especially minority language parents dread, and which gives rise to question such as:
– Is it the start of a slippery slope which may end in the majority language taking over as the language of communication in our family?
– Have I not done enough or the right things to encourage the use of my language?
– How can I reverse this trend and get us back on track again?

There are four major reasons that parents and children give when asked what was behind the change in the language use, and these can be summarised as want, need, habit and time.

1. Don’t want to

“She didn’t want to speak it anymore” or “He preferred the majority language after going to school” – these are the most common reason parents state for when a child has stopped using a minority language. Wanting to speak a language is the most important motivator and guarantor for keeping a language active. The important thing is to understand why the ‘want’ seems to all of a sudden vanish. The language a person speaks is a big part of their personality, no matter the age, so to drop it is a big change, and there is always an underlying reason for it. Each child is different, so it is vital that you try to find the cause for what has made your child make this choice.

Some questions to ask:
– Are there any negative connotations with the language?
– Does your child feel compelled to speak the language?
– Has your child been made uncomfortable for either speaking or
not speaking the language?
– Has anyone made fun of your child when he or she has spoken it?
– Has there been bullying at school because of the language?
– Has anyone criticised or overly corrected how your child speaks the language?
– Is your child shy and afraid of making mistakes?
– Does your child not see the value in using your language?
– Or, is it just a phase in their life when the answer to everything you suggest is
No! ?

By exploring these options and discussing with your child, you will get a better picture of the situation, which will put you in a better place to address it.

2. Don’t need to

“Why use it, everybody understands me when I speak the majority language anyway?” – children are very pragmatic and usually take the path of least resistance. If they do not experience any real need to use a language, and they have an option they feel is easier – to speak the majority language – it is not surprising if that is what they decide to do. Next to wanting to speak a language, needing to use it is a key factor for making sure a child not only understands, but also speaks the language.

Again, for you to create the right type of motivation, to make you child want to maintain the minority language, it is a question of finding out what drives your offspring and what you can do to change the situation. I know that several parents have (successfully) used the tactic of refusing to understand their child if spoken to in the “wrong” one. I am not saying this is a strategy that should not be used at all, but I confess that I am not a big fan of it. The risk of creating negative associations with the language is great and the approach may backfire. Also, I for one, would have felt devastated if my mother or father had ever refused to communicate with me because of my language choice.

My preferred option is to find ways to draw your child towards your language by finding the right way to motivate her or him. Again, every child is different, and a parent is the best expert on what makes their kids tick, so work with what spurs your child on. Different types of rewards, trips to where the language is spoken, play groups and fun activities in the language are great boosters for its use.

3. Don’t have the habit

“We just got out of the habit of speaking it” is another comment I have heard from families where the minority language has lost its importance. To create any habit you need to consistently take certain actions. To make speaking a language a habit, you as a parent need to continue using the language with your child even if your child does not speak it to you. Ideally, also find other people with whom your child can practise it. If you are the only speaker where you live, set up regular on-line calls with relatives and friends to expand the circle of people that your child communicates with in the language.

Habits change when life circumstances change – as long as a child stays mostly in a home environment, it is usually fairly easy to maintain a minority language as the common language. However, attending nursery or going to school in the majority language brings with a huge shift in the language habits for a child, so these are crucial phases in the language development stages of your bilingual child.

Another thing to keep in mind is to pay close attention to your own language use – do you yourself quickly switch to the majority language, even if it is not necessary? Are you being a good, positive role model as a speaker of the language?

4. Don’t have the time

Time is of the essence to us all, but there is really no difference in time when saying something in one language or another. So, if your child says that it is quicker to say it in the majority language, what he or she really means is:
– I don’t know the right words.
– I don’t know how to form a correct sentence for what I want to say.
– I am afraid of making a mistake.

In other words, what needs addressing is not the time aspect but the knowledge of the language and the confidence to use it. Ways of addressing these, apart from the obvious of generally using the language more with your child, are for example to encourage reading books and magazines, preparing for new experiences by learning the relevant vocabulary and constantly giving positive feedback whenever your child speaks the language.

Reading is a great habit to have from the very start – if you nurture a love for books in your child, he or she will benefit from it in so many ways later in life. When something new is going to happen in the family’s life, speak about with your child in your language – make sure the vocabulary becomes familiar before the change. Speak about nursery, routines, instructions, school, classroom, teachers, subjects and so on – this way your child will not need to start looking for words when telling you about what happened at school.

What do you think? Have you experienced this and what worked/didn’t work for you?


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  1. Stephen Greene

    Hi Rita,

    My son nearly always responds in Portuguese to me, and I think it is because of point number 2 because he knows I understand him.

    I decided, a long time ago, that his language choice would be entirely up to him. He is free to speak in whatever language he wants and he will figure out himself what works and what doesn’t work. I don’t want to stress him out to force him to speak a language he is not ready for/comfortable with.

    I will, however, continue to speak English to him, and expose him to English from my family members, music and TV.

    One thing that is clear to me is that when he is around my family members who can’t speak Portuguese he does use English. This shows me that something is working inside his brain and I am confident that when he older he will be fine in both English and Portuguese.

    • Rita

      Hi Stephen,

      thank you for your comment and for stopping by. I fully agree that a language can not (and should not) be forced upon anyone. However, I don’t think that passing on a language with some consistency has to cause stress for a child. It can be done in a very natural manner and while having fun.

      I also think that there is a difference as to which the minority language is – with English, your son is, as you say, bound to learn it at some point. There are also plenty of other opportunities for exposure to English. I am however pretty sure that had I not stuck to Swedish, especially with my younger daughter who was six when we moved to the UK, the likelihood is that she would not have been able to speak Swedish fluently, as she does today. She is now adult and is thankful that I kept the Swedish going for her.

  2. Carolien

    Thank you so much for this blog/post. It keeps me motivated speaking my home language (dutch) to my kids. The thing that ‘disappoints’ me a bit lately is that my oldest daughter (4yr and can speak dutch very well) speaks english to her younger sister which causes that my younger daughter (2) doesnt feel the need to speak dutch at all although she does understand. I do ask my oldest to speak dutch to the younger one but I think the english vocabulary is just getting bigger now she has started pre-school and having a bigger social life outside of home, so english is just getting easier than dutch. It is good to read tips on how to feed the minority language more. Thank you for your website and I will keep reading it as it is really inspirational for me (and us a bilingual family).

    • Rita

      Thank you for your kind comments, Carolien! As you have noted, it is very difficult for a parent to influence children’s choice of language when they speak with each other. This is just how it is, Even if you managed to somehow convince them to use Dutch when you can hear – in the end they will stick to their own choice anyway. Don’t let this get you down though. My adult daughters now speak English with each other, but still speak Swedish with me and Punjabi with their father.

  3. Irene Sakellarakis

    Thanks for the post! I’m a single mom, bilingual, and raising my son bilingual in Greek and English. I see that as his English vocabulary grows he wants to use it or finds it easier in certain situations. Like the other poster, I don’t force anything, but find ways to switch back and forth between languages to reinforce a concept in both languages in order to build expressive ability in either one.

    Finding “fun” things to do in/with the minority language helps, TV shows, games, songs. The single biggest influence, however, is to put him in low-stress social situations where the minority language temporarily becomes the majority one. We just spent and “immersion” weekend with Greek friends where everyone from adults to babies interacted in Greek. Suddenly facility and comfort was boosted and Greek reinforced and improved.

    • Rita

      Hi Irene – I take may virtual hat off for you for passing on two languages as a single mother. I like how you empasize “low-stress” situations in which the minority language get a boost!

    • Orthodoxia

      Hi Irene I would like to ask you how you did it. ive been speaking to my daughter of 4 now in English since birth ok and greek aswell The majority of times i speak to her always in english but she always answers me in greek. what to do i really want her to start answering in english

  4. Lou Ann Keiser

    I believe parents need to look for motives as to why the child mixes up the language. Is he being stubborn? Is he just using what comes to mind? Is it truly easier for him to speak one over the other–especially if he goes to school in the second language? We are a bilingual home, and our kids basically used the words that came to mind. We mostly spoke English at home, and I homeschooled in English, but if a child said something in Spanish or French, it was understood and not corrected. We had a happy home. (Kids are grown now.) We have known, though, children who refused to use the second language at all. That is stubborn and should be corrected. I believe the parents should look for the reasons why there’s a problem, and if there truly is a problem.

    • Rita

      Hi Lou Ann, yes, as I state in the article, it is important to understand why a child does not answer in the same language as spoken to. As far as “stubbornness” goes, it may be a factor, and each parent should react to that in the way they find comfortable to do, but normally the reasons lie elsewhere. I believe that you can offer a child the phrase in your own language without the communication becoming overly corrective – and I most certainly believe it can be done without venturing the happiness of the family.



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